Here is my article published in the Fabian Society Review Labour Party Conference edition.
Despite recent difficulties the European Union is a great success. Many others in the Balkans, in Turkey and Eastern Europe still aspire to join us. Why should that be if it was the unmitigated failure portrayed by Europhobic politicians?
In the 70 years between 1870 and 1940 there were three major European wars. The Nobel prize committee rightly recognised the European Union’s major contribution to peace, democracy, prosperity and stability in our continent.
Despite recent growth of the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, almost half of all British trade is still with the other EU countries. We sell more to the Netherlands and Ireland than we do to China. So Britain outside the EU and its single market and EU negotiated treaties could be in a cold lonely place, subject to uncertainty and speculation.
The Norwegian model of being outside the EU decision-making process but making big payments to the EU to get access to its single market, or ‘integration without representation’ would be much worse for the UK than the system we have today.
Despite the impression given by Europhobes, we do not have a gargantuan European Union bureaucracy hoovering up resources. UK public spending accounts for more than 40 per cent of our GDP each year. The EU budget is only 1 per cent of the GDP of its member states. The European Commission has around 30,000 employees who serve 28 member states, whereas Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, responsible for our tax collection has about 80,000 employees alone.
The UK spends five times as much servicing the interest of the national debt each year than in European Union contributions. Our net contribution to the EU – with the rebate that was retained by the previous Labour government – is less than Germany and comparable to that made by France, a similar country in terms of population and GDP.
And let’s not forget that the EU is also about solidarity with poorer new member states which has led to the growth of an internal market numbering 500 million people. British workers and British companies benefit from the increased trade and prosperity this brings.
Granted, there is a case for reform of the European Union but it will not be achieved by David Cameron’s approach to the issue.
We are in the midst of an economic crisis that confronts the whole of this continent while grappling with the misguided austerity economics that is making tens of millions unemployed. But Cameron wants to obsessively discuss the minutiae of what is probably an unrealisable renegotiation about unrealisable repatriation powers.
By the time of a referendum in late 2017, the current EU status quo will no longer be an option. Instead, the ‘renegotiated’ choice would be between more opt-outs on a ‘social Europe’ (covering matters such as maternity and paternity leave, paid holidays, trade union rights, and the provisions of the Social Chapter and the working time directive), or a complete withdrawal.
As the Foreign Affairs Select Committee argued in its recent unanimous report, “the government should frame its approach and language in pan-EU rather than UK-only terms, and should remain constructive, positive and engaged.”
The governments of Poland, Germany and the Nordic countries, to name a few, want the UK to stay on as constructive partners, but they will not wreck the EU to keep us.
The Cameron government has taken a dangerous leap in the dark, creating enormous uncertainty for anybody who to invest in this country and putting British jobs at risk.
If Labour does not follow suit, this risk to inward investment will be reduced. However if Labour goes down the same route it will mean that a newly-elected Labour government would have to spend its first 18 months being diverted from domestic priorities into a futile renegotiation and referendum.
Let’s not get diverted into a Tory referendum game. Instead, let’s make the 2015 election a clear referendum on Britain’s future in Europe: vote Labour for constructive engagement and reform, vote Tory for uncertainty and UKIP if you want to leave.
It is time for Labour to stop being defensive and to start making the positive case for Europe.